FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Joe McKnight was nearly a cornerback in college. That's how most programs envisioned the wiry, young high school senior from New Orleans. But when Pete Carroll walked into his living room, with McKnight's skeptical mother and grandmother looking on, Carroll brought charts showing the odds of a USC player making it to the NFL compared with other colleges.
"You want me to play running back?" McKnight asked Carroll. "And he was like 'Yeah, I want you to play whatever you want to play.' So I was like, 'All right.' I committed on the home visit."
McKnight played running back at USC, but now his position with the New York Jets seems to be back in flux. Between Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson, there won't be a lot of playing time at the spot. So McKnight has become a big part of the special-teams unit -- where he returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens -- and was even plugged in as a defensive back for a play.
"Last game he rushed the passer," said Jets Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis. "He's got the skills and he's used to the position."
Jets coach Rex Ryan realizes he's got a football player in McKnight, one with explosive speed, but it's a matter of finding the right spot to play him.
"Quite honestly there's a reason we kept him over Danny Woodhead," Ryan said. "Danny Woodhead is a great back, done great things for New England, but [McKnight's] ceiling is about as high as it gets, so we'll see. I think he has the chance to be a heck of a player. Might be a corner, might be whatever but he can play."
The 107-yard kickoff return was the longest play in franchise history. McKnight bought an iPod for Jamaal Westerman and a pair of designer headphones for Matthew Mulligan after they blocked for him on the play. But it almost didn't happen. When McKnight returned to the Jets' sideline special-teams coordinator Mike Westhoff laughed that he'd almost replaced McKnight with Antonio Cromartie.
"I still have to make some plays before I get on Westhoff's good side," McKnight said.
He got off to a rough start after the 2010 draft. When McKnight arrived at the Jets' rookie minicamp, his conditioning wasn't what it should be. The draft pick, who came in as the well-liked running back crew of Leon Washington and Thomas Jones was dismantled, was not off to a good start with Westhoff or anyone else.
Blocked punts and touchdowns aside, McKnight has not completely lived the ignominious arrival down. People come up to him on the street with a, "Hey, I know who you are!" before rehashing the story. Even those who wish him well are pulling him aside with advice on nutrition or workouts. But McKnight has that stuff down now.
As much as he chafed against the caricature he drew for himself, McKnight didn't quit. And ultimately that's what forms his teammates' current opinions.
"There's two ways you can go with it," center Nick Mangold said. "You can go in the tank and end up not doing anything, or you can try to fight that and get better, keep working. He took the hard-work route and it's paying off."
And having the extra time with the offense has helped. His thinking on the field during practice slowed him down. But as things become more instinctive, it plays to his strengths as a player.
"The biggest thing for Joe is definitely knowing the playbook," tight end Dustin Keller said. "Last year he couldn't play fast, he couldn't play to his ability because he's questioning himself out there. He's second-guessing everything, and now he knows exactly what he's doing. Every single play he's out there he's playing 100 mph and he's a tough guy to cover out there. And the more and more comfortable he gets with the offense the more you're going to see out of Joe."
Now fans and the Jets' coaching staff are looking to see more from McKnight, whether that's offense, defense or special teams. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer joked that he has a hard time getting time with the running back.
"If we can get him away from Coach Westhoff," Schottenheimer said. "Every time we look for him he's over there with Mike or the defense. But yes, Joe has done a great job. We've all known how talented he was and we've definitely started rolling him in some, and again, [he's] just a great player. I guess he helped cause an interception or something last game and blocked a punt and just done a great job."
McKnight learned to be versatile in high school, as a running back, corner and free safety. Now he looks back at his decision to play offense, and thinks it might have been easier if he had remained a defensive back. But the time in California, all on his own and so far from home, actually helped him.
"I just needed time to settle into my own skin," McKnight said.
Now he just needs to settle into his role with the Jets, whatever that is.
"Maybe the coaches are finding the niche for Joe McKnight," Ryan said. "Because it's like, here he is a kickoff returner -- he leads the league -- he goes down on a kickoff forces a fumble, and yet this is a guy who when we had him in preseason that first year, he couldn't hold on to the ball. We were all down on him and things, but sometimes you got to be patient because the one thing he always had was great athleticism."